The noted actor Corin Redgrave, who died on April 6, made a major contribution to revolutionary politics in Britain from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. He played a crucial part in his sister Vanessa’s transition from radical protest politics to her embracing revolutionary Marxism and the self-determination cause of oppressed people, in particular the Palestinians.
As leading members of the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) and the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), the siblings were in many ways the public face of these organisations. They stood as candidates in general elections and led campaigns within the actors’ trade union British Actor’s Equity for better pay and conditions as well as a democratic union structure. They inspired many talented professionals to join the WRP, including other actors, film directors, producers and leading journalists.
The period when they did this was characterised by mass social and political upheavals in Britain and internationally. They were drawn to the Black Power movement in the US and the anti-Vietnam war movement closer to home. It was the ability of the WRP to explain the economic crisis of capitalism and the creative development of Marxist dialectics under the leadership of Gerry Healy which crucially attracted brother and sister to revolutionary politics. This was fully acknowledged by Vanessa Redgrave in her autobiography, written with Healy’s active support.
Corin Redgrave became a full-time WRP organiser during the tumultuous 1970s. He helped raise the finance to purchase White Meadows, a large house in Derbyshire which would become the party’s educational premises in 1975. Only one month after the school opened, 100 police officers raided the premises, under the guise of searching for hidden weapons. A frame-up was sprung by The Observer newspaper and trade union bureaucrats and the police raid was authorised by Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins.
Subsequently, on behalf of the WRP, the Redgraves sued The Observer for libel. Their unflinching court performance secured a positive judgement, but huge costs which the plaintiffs had to pay, were awarded to The Observer. These were paid after a successful campaign in the labour movement to raise the money.
The miners’ strike for jobs in 1984-1985 ended with a significant growth in stature for the party. But in the autumn the Workers Revolutionary Party suffered a series of splits. Corin and Vanessa Redgrave stood firm during a vicious media witch-hunt against the 72-year-old Healy. Corin in particular helped Healy uncover how the party had been destabilised by a group within its finance office, a plot documented in Gerry Healy - a Revolutionary Life.
In 1988 Redgrave became general secretary of the newly-formed Marxist Party. But his loyalties were increasingly divided between political leadership and his desire to resume his stage career full-time. These countervailing pressures coincided with the extreme tensions as perestroika and glasnost reached their apogee in the USSR. Redgrave accompanied Healy to the Soviet Union on several occasions to work directly with opponents of Stalinism and promote the struggle for historical truth then under way under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev.
With Healy’s death at the end of 1989, a powerful link was broken. After co-organising an international symposium to examine the history of Stalinism in the spring of 1990, Redgrave went on to break an undertaking he had made to the Marxist Party that he would continue to devote himself to leading the organisation.
In November that year, events turned full circle as the International Committee members, urged on by the Redgraves, organised a witch-hunt which disabled and split the Marxist Party. Long-standing members were denounced or simply cast aside on a pretext. The provocation fatally wounded the ICFI. Redgrave went on to abandon the work begun by Healy and himself to pin down the financial conspirators against the WRP. He agreed to the sale of White Meadows whose deed was under his name. The proceeds were shared with those who had broken up the WRP.
These events signalled an unchecked retreat from Marxism and Trotskyism by both Corin and Vanessa Redgrave – just as Stalinist regimes around the world broke up or melted down. In the first Gulf War in early 1991, the Marxist Party adopted a position of neutrality that flew in the face of everything they had learned from Healy and the WRP. In October 1993, the party supported Boris Yeltsin, who was busily restoring capitalism in the former Soviet Union, when his regime bombarded the Russian parliament.
Corin Redgrave’s acting career flourished in the 1990s in the wake of these political retreats. Roles poured in from the BBC, ITV, the film industry, and the London stage. Redgrave later spoke about his “rehabilitation”. Interviewed in July 2002, he told the Daily Telegraph that essentially he did not agree with Marxism any longer and that the great change for him had been the fact that "the most important principles of dialectical materialism have been turned upside-down by discoveries in quantum physics”.
The Marxist Party was subsequently dissolved into a human rights organisation called Peace and Progress. This reverted to the “safe” liberal-Stalinist politics that he and his sister had rejected in the late 1960s. It was an unworthy finale to a political life in which Corin Redgrave’s contribution to revolutionary politics at another period had been outstanding.
16 July 1939 – 6 April 2010